- Associated Press - Wednesday, May 6, 2015

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) - A new office to consider disputes over Freedom of Information Act requests in South Carolina would give people a less expensive way to fight governments when records requests are denied, two newspaper editors said Wednesday.

A Senate subcommittee took testimony on the bill, which has already passed the House. The subcommittee took no action and more hearings are planned.

The proposal makes several changes in the state’s public records law, including clarifying how quickly governments must respond to public records requests and preventing them from charging excessive fees.

But its biggest change is creating an Office of Freedom of Information Act to resolve disputes when agencies refuse to release records. Currently, a fight over an open records request must go straight to Circuit Court, which can be expensive.

The Index-Journal of Greenwood had to go to court to get dashboard camera video and other evidence after a Greenwood city councilwoman was charged with driving under the influence. The 18-month court fight cost the newspaper $7,000, which an ordinary citizen likely couldn’t afford, Executive Editor Richard Whiting said.

“There is a great reluctance in some to provide what should be in the public eye,” Whiting said.

Government agencies told senators they always want to be transparent while following the law. Sheriff’s offices, cities, counties and school boards want lawmakers to be careful about adjusting the length of time they have to respond to public records requests or limiting what they can charge.

“We don’t have a public information officer. We’ve got Debbie. And Debbie, in addition to being the clerk of council and my administrative assistant, is also the FOIA contact person,” Lancaster County Administrator Steve Willis said of his assistant, Debbie Hardin. “Occasionally, she goes on vacation for two weeks. Well, that’s my 10 days and I’m in trouble because I don’t have a backup for Debbie.”

Smaller sheriff’s offices might have to pull deputies off the street for broad public records requests like all the disciplinary actions over three years for a particular patrol shift, South Carolina Sheriff’s Association Executive Director Jarrod Bruder said.

But neighboring Georgia requires agencies to answer public records requests within three days and hasn’t reported massive problems, said Tim O’Briant, executive editor of the Aiken Standard.

“I don’t think they’ve stopped patrolling the streets or governing their cities to answer FOI requests,” O’Briant said.


Follow Jeffrey Collins on Twitter at https://twitter.com/JSCollinsAP

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